Emotional acknowledgment is the simple act of noticing a nonverbal emotional cue — like a frown or grin — and mentioning it. This mention can be a question or a statement such as “You look upset,” or “You seem excited.” (…) this small act can have a powerful effect because it is read as a sign of genuine intentions.
in a work environment, a supervisor who shows concern for others’ emotional state is signaling a willingness to get involved in a potentially messy situation. “A leader could very easily see someone in distress and choose to ignore it,” Yu says. “But only a leader who truly is benevolent and cares about employees would risk getting involved by voluntarily acknowledging the distressed employee. Thus, employees might take this as a signal that this leader is someone who can be trusted with their well-being.”
in research across six studies, (…) participants reported higher levels of trust in people who engaged in emotional acknowledgment than those who did not.
This result aligned with the theory
Asking someone who seems unhappy about their emotional state engenders higher levels of trust because it is riskier and involves a greater investment of attention, time, and effort than asking someone who seems happy.
There was, in addition, an unexpected finding:
acknowledging an employee’s emotional state is more powerful than only acknowledging the situation that produced the emotions. “It turns out that saying something like, ‘You looked upset after that meeting. How are you feeling about it?’ lands better than saying something like, ‘It looked like the meeting went poorly. How are you thinking about it?’ Yu explains.
“People trust the person who acknowledges the emotion directly more than the person who acknowledges the situation. There’s just something special and unique about emotions — they are really core to a person’s inner experience and sense of self. So when we acknowledge emotions, we humanize and validate the person being acknowledged.”
And another unexpected finding: you don’t even have to get it right
the trust-building effect of emotional acknowledgment is not always dependent on correctly interpreting emotions, particularly when positive feelings are misread.
But emotional support is not part of my formal job expectations as a manager!
If leaders want to signal care and build trust, they need to meet people where they are. The worst thing leaders can do when employees are feeling badly is to do nothing. Our research suggests one way to do that is by proactively engaging in emotional acknowledgment because it grants employees the space and license to share their emotions.
The paper: Alisa Yu, Justin M. Berg, Julian J. Zlatev, “Emotional acknowledgment: How verbalizing others’ emotions fosters interpersonal trust”, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 164, 2021
, Pages 116-135. The report: Theodore Kinni, “All the Feels: Why It Pays to Notice Emotions in the Workplace”, Insights, Stanford Business
, May 13, 2021.